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Cheesy, Cornbread-ish Polenta Meets Zesty Kale, Forgets Main Dish

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As a food blogger (since 2010), I've kept a keen eye on recipes in cookbooks, websites, papers, and food magazines. One thing I often found missing in all those recipes was the attention to the most important part of a meal, in my opinion—the sides. These vegetables, grains, pulses, and legumes have so much potential; you can enhance or change the flavor and texture of a side like zucchini more than you can with pork or beef. Instead of letting a centerpiece inform the sides, what if we worked in the other direction?

Remix This Simple-But-Meh Side With Hazelnuts & No Extra Time
Remix This Simple-But-Meh Side With Hazelnuts & No Extra Time

Frustrated by these omissions, I wrote a cookbook that addressed this question. My recipes in On the Side presents sides as a starting point for meal planning, the food to fixate on making before you think about the rest. (Okay, but because old habits die hard, so there's a directory in the back for those who've already chosen their centerpiece.)


In fact, the concept of vegetable sides next to centerpiece of protein is a fairly western one; in Britain, where I'm from, we call it "meat and two veg." But if you look at mealtimes in India, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East, the vegetables often have equal billing with meat or fish (if there’s meat or fish at all). No element of the meal is of less importance.

1 side + 1 side = 1 meal
1 side + 1 side = 1 meal Photo by Jenny Huang

The following side dish recipes, for example, make for a satisfying supper: Roman rosemary polenta, baked and cut into squares, needs only a mound of orange and chili-flecked cavolo nero to go with it. First, the cheesy, herby polenta is cooled to set, then broiled or baked with more cheese on top. In some ways, it becomes the centerpiece—like mac n' cheese or another pasta—but then kale’s got so much going on that it doesn’t take a step back and sit quietly on the plate. Each mouthful is interesting, invigorating, even though there are only two items. It’s really good match for late winter, as the polenta is comforting and the kale is verdant.

Could you add a pork chop, roast chicken, or a beef stew? Yes, but you really don’t have to.

C16f1d8a 72fc 434a ba02 6bafd2cc628b  2018 0228 rosemary polenta squares jenny huang

Roman Rosemary Polenta Squares

709b7ecb 8e1b 4e6d 87c4 2fcce11f3e9f  ed smith profile pic 1 c joe woodhouse Ed Smith | Rocket & Squash
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Serves 4-6
  • 800 milliliters (3 1/3 cup) milk
  • 3 sprigs rosemary
  • 150 grams (2/3 cup) polenta
  • 70 grams (1/2 cup) butter, divided
  • 80 grams (3/4 cup) grated Parmesan, divided
  • Olive oil, for greasing
  • Sea salt
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F8d47af3 7fcb 46ab 86a1 be3338206881  2018 0228 cavolo nero with rosemary polenta squares 3x2 jenny huang

Cavolo Nero with Garlic, Chili & Orange

709b7ecb 8e1b 4e6d 87c4 2fcce11f3e9f  ed smith profile pic 1 c joe woodhouse Ed Smith | Rocket & Squash
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Serves 4
  • 300-350 grams (about 10-oz) cavolo nero (Tuscan kale) leaves
  • 1 orange
  • 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 red chili (like Serrano), finely diced
  • 1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
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Are you the kinda person who always orders side dishes as their main in restaurants? Let us know in the comments!

Tags: kale, polenta